Data centre energy crisis looms

Data centres are consuming power at a rate that can no longer be sustained, a new report warns

A crisis is looming in the UK's data centres around the most fundamental of requirements, the need for power, according to a study published by BroadGroup consultants.

According to the study, the average energy costs of running a corporate UK data centre is currently about £5.3m a year. This figure is set to double to £11m over the next five years.

The rise in costs will make the UK the most expensive place in Europe in which to run a data centre, according to the BroadGroup's Power and Cooling Survey 2006.

"The IT industry has been in denial about the cost of energy," said the report's author, Keith Breed, research director at the BroadGroup. "Look at chips, they get faster and more powerful all the time and use more and more power."

Breed warned that the industry is now at a crossroads, especially in the UK. "Most companies have long-term contracts for energy and so they have not had to face up to the costs. As those contracts come up for renewal, they can find themselves faced with up to a 50 percent increase."

According to Breed, energy costs now account for near 30 percent of a datacentre's operating costs.

A big part of the problem is the need to cool data centres and IT departments. "Datacentres are hitting a technological ceiling where cooling technologies could become the prohibitive factor," said Breed.

But Breed is optimistic that the IT industry can find ways to help with this area in particular. "Companies like IBM and HP are doing some really innovative things with cooling technology," he said.

Data centres face other challenges. "There is a growing sentiment towards green credentials and the carbon emissions from buildings directive, which comes in to force in January 2007," said Breed. "Increasingly data centers will find themselves facing severe operational challenges."

Other innovative ways of making IT more environmentally friendly include include ultra-thin, high-density server designs, hydrogen fuel-cells as alternative "green" power sources, virtualisation technologies that spread the use of computing resources to minimise heat, and nanofluid-cooling systems for the IT estate.

The mainframe is one part of the wider problem facing data centre managers, as they are bulky and demand plenty of cooling and air-conditioning. Ealier this week, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, and Intel set out a detailed programme to help customers reduce costs by migrating applications from mainframes to servers.

But it is the overall increases in processor power that is central to the cooling problems, according to the BroadGroup report. They estimate that maintaining the data centre and its cooling environment accounts for 70 percent of the total electricity output.

Breed remains optimistic. "The challenges are immense but the research shows the industry has the will and conviction to tackle the eco-issues head-on," he said.

Power and cooling is the subject of a two-day conference that starts on Wednesday at the Paddington Hilton, London.

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